[WATCH] Dusty fingers: the vinyl revival

Vinyl’s comeback is still going strong at Malta’s oldest record store, the D’Amato Records outlet in Valletta. MaltaToday finds out what the lure of the analog is all about

Dusty fingers: the vinyl revival at D'Amato Records

The fine wine of music formats, vinyl records are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity that’s outstripping digital music growth, proving the adage that everything old is new again as the venerable audio format comes full circle from its previous fall from favour.

Once relegated to dusty basements and audiophile geeks, vinyl is making a comeback and its popularity has been steadily climbing for the past five years, riding a part-organic, part commercially cultivated wave of nostalgia.

Domestic record shops report increasing sales of LP records, singles and vinyl players and this is a trend that appears to be repeating itself across much of the Western world.

But after super high-quality audio from CDs and ultimate portability through digital formats, what is the driving force behind the analogue vinyl resurgence?

Before going any further, it’s important to understand how records work. The phonograph concept is nearly two hundred years old and is an analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat disc with an etched, modulated spiral groove. The groove usually begins near the periphery of the disc and ends near the centre. A record player reads the record by dragging a needle across the surface, translating the crests and troughs into sound. There are various sizes and rotational speeds but the concept remains the same.

It is an imperfect form of sound reproduction and the output is often punctuated by crackles, pops and hiss but as any vinyl aficionado will tell you, these very qualities are part of its appeal.

Like opening a bottle of wine or rolling a cigarette, “part of the pleasure of vinyl lies in the ritual of unpacking the disk, placing it on the turntable and dropping the needle,” explains Anthony D’Amato, co-owner and curator of probably the oldest record store in the world – D’Amato Records, in Valletta. D’Amato believes part of the appeal of vinyl is its low-tech nature.

“First of all, it’s the ritual of listening to a whole album, not clicking to your favourite tracks. Plus sound connoisseurs say the quality is better than CDs or mp3.”

That it’s a hard-wearing format helps. “Try not to scratch it, keep it clean and it should outlive you a hundred times,” D’Amato says.

Despite the fact that mobile phones and tablets are music lovers’ devices of choice for music playback – a result of streaming media’s dominance – vinyl’s vintage novelty is feeding a boom in record sales, he says.

“It’s led to an interesting situation whereby artists from decades ago are topping charts due to vinyl sales.” In fact, a look at 2016’s record charts is like stepping into a 1980s time warp - Queen, the Stone Roses, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, the Clash are amongst the most popular. Mercifully, the likes of Macklemore and Justin Bieber appear to be absent.

“New vinyl listeners tend to start with Pink Floyd, the Beatles, David Bowie, the Rolling stones. Bowie’s Aladdin Sane is flying off the shelves right now.”

The shop might be the oldest record shop in the world
The shop might be the oldest record shop in the world

The bestselling albums include Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall and the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

“There are the must haves and then you go on building your collection,” D’Amato says.

Averaging €25 an album, the cost could be expected to be prohibitive to a generation used to cheap (or free) music downloads. But this isn’t reflected in the format’s climbing sales figures. The boost in vinyl sales is part of a wider shift in the fortunes of the music industry as it returns towards turning a profit, with vinyl increasingly a significant source of income for record labels and musicians, because the profit margins on it are huge.

“We have been established since 1885, five generations ago,” D’Amato says of the eponymous shop. “At the turn of the century we moved to records but never changed location...It is curating a piece of history.”

The business has had its ups and downs, but things are looking promising, he says.

“The demand was very good in the past couple of years and it’s growing,” D’Amato says.

“In the UK, HMV have sold more record players than they had in the 1970s.”

“First editions are much more valuable... they hold value and increase in value every year. If the Chinese market takes hold, the price of original records will skyrocket... through the roof.”

Vinyl was the dominant format for music reproduction from 1912 till the late 20th century and retained the largest market share even when new formats such as the compact cassette started to emerge, but by the late 1980s, the digital compact disc had superseded vinyl, and the record fell from popularity around 1991.

From the 1990s to the 2010s, records continued to be manufactured and sold on a much smaller scale, before making a comeback in the early 21st century – 9.2 million records were sold in the US in 2014, a 260% increase since 2009 and UK sales have increased 500% between 2009 and 2014. In 2017, vinyl recorded double-digit growth for the seventh consecutive year, with an estimated 40 million records sold. That figure – along with the sales of turntables and other listening accessories – pushed the industry over the $1 billion mark.

Vinyl’s resurgence is all the more remarkable considering that physical album sales continue to plummet as customers gravitate toward streaming services such as Spotify and Google music.

Even local artists are releasing records on vinyl, he says, naming bands Brikkuni, Brodu and Beesqueeze as recent converts. Records can be collectors’ items.

“What determines the value is the etching,” D’Amato explains. All records have etching right under the label, indicating its pressing number.

“This is what determines the value.” A first press of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would fetch thousands of euros today, he says.

“There is a craze for crate-digging, where people come and dig into crates of old records, looking for treasures. Sometimes they find them.”